Surveillance Law from Standford University via Coursera

In the past week I completed the work for the first MOOC (Massive Open online Course) that I’ve ever taken.  The course was Surveillance Law which I completed via Coursera. Let me start by saying that this course was fantastic.  The presenter, Jonathan Mayer from Stanford did a great job delivering a series of short lectures that introduced and discussed US surveillance laws from technical and legal perspectives.  The readings were great on that Mayer and the course team choose great materials but also advised participants when to read and when to skim.  The lectures and materials covered topics and news that happened just weeks and months ago; so the overall course was tremendously relevant and informative.

The discussion forums in a MOOC can be pretty daunting.  There were many, many people participating.  I read a number of messages and threads that I felt were off topic and became less interested in participating there.  I regret that now as I later learned that a number of regional, online (Google hangouts?), and over the phone study groups formed.  I would have liked to participate in one of those.  The constant “we’re screwed’, ‘the government is watching us’ attitudes expressed and off topic back and forth in some (many) of the discussions had turned me off.  I realize now they turned me off too soon.

Among what I thought were the highlights of the course:

How to Read a Legal Opinion, A Guide for New Law Students by Orin Kerr was a fantastic read.  Thank you.

Liberty and Security in a Changing World, Report and Recommendations of The President’s  Review group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies. I had seen and read this document before but i reading it again in contect with the lectures i got so much more out of it.

– Jonathan’s great red t-shirt

– An archive of all of the course lectures appears on Youtube!

I would highly recommend this course to anyone interested in criminal justice or surveillance law.  I’d also highly recommend Jonathan Mayer as a course instructor.



Security Via Fingerprint Versus Pass Code

A topic of much discussion of late has been reporting about a Virgina court ruling involving access to a data stored on a phone.  In this case a man was charged with assaulting a woman and evidence of the crime was believed to have been recorded.  A video of the assault was suspected of being stored on the man’s phone.  Prosecutors sought a court order to force the defendant to unlock his phone so they could search it for that video.

The judge in the case ruled that the defendant providing a pass code would be divulging knowledge that could incriminate themselves.  The defendant giving investigators that pass code would provide access to data on the phone that could incriminate the defendant.  The judge ruled that defendant did not have to provide the pass code given their right against self incrimination as described in the fifth amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  But the judges ruling didn’t end there.

The judge ruled that giving police a fingerprint is akin to providing a DNA or handwriting sample or an actual key, which the law permits.  The FBI description states:

Fingerprints vary from person to person (even identical twins have different prints) and don’t change over time. As a result, they are an effective way of identifying fugitives and helping to prove both guilt and innocence.

The US Marshals Service maintain a page dedicated to the history of fingerprints noting that the first systemic use of the technology was the NY State Prison System in 1903.

It is interesting that as fingerprints are ‘something you are’ like other identifying characteristics such as skin, eye, or hair color; and unlike a pass code (or social security or drivers license number) or ‘something you know’ you cannot withhold your fingerprint from law enforcement personal seeking to determine your identity.